Back to top

Interview / Melanie Newton and Deborah Cowen

Interview / Melanie Newton and Deborah Cowen

Melanie Newton and Deborah Cowen are members of CensureUofT, a group of academic staff at the University of Toronto who successfully organized after CAUT imposed a censure on U of T in April 2021. The censure was in response to the aborted hiring of Dr. Valentina Azarova as director of the Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program following concerns raised by a donor about Dr. Azarova’s scholarship on Israel and Palestine. Melanie and Deborah shared their thoughts with the Bulletin on what made collective action so effective.

Why is it important to defend academic freedom?

Newton: Academic freedom is as fundamental as freedom of the press. It is often constructed as only beneficial to the careers of a few academics, but the pandemic has shown that it is vital for a safe and just society. It is important to have scholars in different areas of intellectual life who can critique, contextualize inequities, and hold the feet of those in power to the fire. We live and work in institutions whose feet are planted in a history of colonialism, in legacies of racism and gender inequality.

In Dr. Valentina Azarova’s case, we saw an attempt to limit the ability of a scholar to exercise academic freedom in a meaningful way on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it was good to see that more people were informed about what is happening in Israel and Palestine and making connections to the issues at home. The suppression of academic freedom preserves the idea that there are political interests that can, at any point, in the interest of power, subvert equity as a basic good. That is a dangerous proposition.

Cowen: The rights of scholars to investigate, write and speak about matters that are, at times, controversial or challenging to employers, governments, donors, and so forth, is fundamental to academic freedom. There is a direct line between fighting oppression and the ability to speak about oppression. Many of us who became active with the censure felt on a personal level, as scholars and as human beings, that it was our responsibility to defend academic freedom. Many of the most active scholars in the censure come from Black, Indigenous, queer and trans, and Muslim communities that have had to defend their own human rights. When scholars challenge historical discrimination against Black people in housing policy, or policies that create segregation within institutions, or hiring practices that historically discriminated against Jewish faculty, they are bringing light to issues of equity and justice through the production of knowledge. Jewish scholars were in fact one of the largest groups to support the censure early on.

Many of us felt that our voice was particularly important given the initial charges of antisemitism directed at the censure. These charges were absurd and deeply offensive. Dr. Azarova’s work on questions of Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territories is entirely consistent with international law, as many Israeli legal scholars attested. And CAUT’s genesis and its 70-year history is deeply connected to efforts to fight systemic racism, and specifically antisemitism.

What inspired you to organize CensureUofT?

Newton: This all began in the late summer of 2020. The hiring committee, faculty members of the advisory board of the International Human Rights Program and other colleagues in the Faculty of Law stood up for the principles of ethics and transparency that were violated by the university’s administration. Through April 2021, they did not back down and got things to a point where CAUT had the information it needed to step in [and impose the censure]. At that point, a group of us connected with colleagues in the Faculty of Law to stand against the University administration’s use of high-profile events with eminent Black speakers, such as former Governor General Michaëlle Jean and former member of Parliament Celina CaesarChavannes, as a fig leaf to show its commitment to anti-racism, while the censure was ongoing.

I am heartened to see that many people understood that the central issues were institutional racism and the structural nature of exclusion that occurs in institutions across Canadian society and globally.

Cowen: Our university’s leadership declared that the censure was irrelevant and that it would be business as usual on campus. This attitude was offensive, because of how it tried to undermine CAUT’s role in holding universities accountable. But the wider geopolitical context of the censure was also important. The censure was unfolding at the same time as the horrendous assaults on Gaza and Sheikh Jarrah, and the connections between the physical violence against Palestinians and the suppression of scholarship on their rights, were hard to ignore.

It was wonderful to see a powerful response to the censure because there isn’t always a big response when university administrations undermine academic freedom, especially around contentious politics. We worked quickly, without hierarchy or structure, without a plan, and remained organic in how we approached the campaign. Our immediate concern was to make sure that our colleagues honoured the censure, but we were mindful that marginalized groups who already face systemic barriers in the university weren't unduly impacted. So, we also worked carefully, in consultation with CAUT, to help define what an academic censure might look like through an equity lens.

With the censure lifted, what's next?

Newton: I cannot stress enough how important it was for people to see what collective action can achieve in bringing a powerful institution, like the University of Toronto, to heel. I hope the censure has brought home that there are fundamental structural problems at the University in terms of governance, accountability, the way that fundraising functions, and the level of understanding and commitment of the current senior leadership to basic principles of equity.

We can’t undo the damage done by the administration, but we need to rebuild the International Human Rights Program and overcome the structural issues that are a threat to academic freedom and shape the lives of academic staff and students. Until we make fundamental transformations toward collegial governance not just at U of T but at other institutions as well, we will continue to see crises like these because an institution that is governed according to principles rooted in white privilege is not an institution that is capable of reform and accountability.

Cowen: The U of T administration said it would never reoffer the position to Dr. Azarova but massive mobilization made it happen. This is a victory, which we must, of course, mark and celebrate. CensureUofT recently hosted an event, which we titled playfully, but also with some seriousness, Can't Stop, Won't Stop, to signal that the work is not done. There are systemic issues made evident by the censure that weren’t and couldn’t be fully addressed by [the censure]. The decline of public funding of post-secondary institutions puts universities in a position where they are courting donors and, on the one hand, publicly professing a deep commitment to academic freedom, but on the other hand, running the institution in ways that consistently threaten and undermine academic freedom.

At U of T, we will continue to be a voice against institutional racism and the role of donors in the administration’s decision-making processes. We are also invested in ongoing work to ensure that scholarship on Palestine not only continues to be undertaken but is flourishing on our campus. We are also working with colleagues in other places and sectors, sharing lessons learned and mobilization strategies. 

Related

December 2021

Commentary / We must not abandon Western-funded Afghan researchers

by AYESHA AHMAD, GUNTARS ERMANSONS, HANNA KIENZLER, CORNELIUS KATONA, AND SIMON GOODMAN For... Read more
/sites/default/files/styles/responsive_low_constrict/public/dec-jan-bulletin-feature-v2-istock-cred-issalina.png?itok=DnD0skRU
December 2021

The psychological toll for academic staff

Earlier this fall, a McMaster University research team published the findings of a broad survey... Read more
December 2021

News / Over half of UK university staff report signs of depression

A report published this past fall in the United Kingdom warns of a mental health crisis facing... Read more